A month after Wyoming's 2019 legislative session, Albany County legislators see numerous accomplishments from the session that ended Feb. 27.
All six of the county’s lawmakers talked to the Laramie Boomerang this week about the work the Legislature accomplished — and the work it didn’t.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, Rep. Cathy Connolly and Rep. Charles Pelkey — all Laramie Democrats — were pleasantly surprised that Wyoming’s K-12 education was able to make it through the 2019 session without facing significant cuts.
Local legislators expressed enthusiasm over House Bill 171, a law that legalizes both the growth and sale of hemp products in the state. The county’s delegates said it could greatly augment the state’s agricultural industry.
“We have companies waiting to move into Wyoming to grow hemp,” Rep. Bill Haley, R-Centennial, said.
Most of the county’s legislators, however, are particularly disappointed the Legislature wasn’t able to pass either of the two major tax bills: A restructuring of the state’s lodging tax system and a corporate income tax for “big box” stores.
Of the 22 bills that Albany County’s sextet combined to sponsor this session, nine were eventually signed into law.
And some of the bills that local Democrats had advocated without little success in past sessions drew major bi-partisan support this year. Some even became law.
After the session first ended, Connolly said she would have given the Legislature’s performance this year a “negative rating.”
But after a few weeks of reflection, she said the state’s probably now “collectively a bit better” than it was before the session.
“We passed quite a few small bills that made people’s lives better and we didn’t pass much that will make people’s lives worse,” she said.
And some of the issues she feels are important are also now being taken more seriously that they have in the past, she noted.
“The discussion about the wage gap went further than we have ever had in the legislative body,” she said.
With some Republicans now fearing that Medicaid expansion might become a ballot issue — red state voters in Idaho, Kansas and Utah voted to expand the program — some legislators who’ve previously opposed the idea are now becoming interested in having the Legislature pass a scaled-back version.
Connolly said the discussions that happened this most recent session regarding Medicaid expansion were meaningful, and are hopefully a recognition that the issue didn’t end with the start of Donald Trump’s presidency, she said.
She said hopes the cost carried by Wyoming’s uninsured continues to change minds in the Legislature to the point that Medicaid expansion could become a real possibility in coming sessions.
“I’ll give people credit for changing a firmly-held view,” she said.
Three of the nine bills Connolly sponsored this session eventually became law. Two were clean-up bills, but one directs the governor to designate a statewide 911 coordinator — a change that should allow local governments to receive more grant funding.
Connolly said that, in coming sessions, she wants to work with Gov. Mark Gordon on establishing greater rights for the LGBT community. Members of the state’s main economic diversification program, ENDOW, identified in 2018 Wyoming’s lack of an anti-discrimination law as a major barrier in preventing new industries and young professionals from coming to Wyoming.
Now that Wyoming’s First Lady, Jennie Gordon, has announced childhood hunger as the major initiative of her office, Connolly said she’s hoping to work this interim with the First Lady on the issue that Connolly also places high importance on.
Connolly said Gordon’s initiative is a good opportunity to revive an idea she’s floated in previous sessions to bring “high quality Wyoming products” into schools for K-12 lunches.
While Connolly said she’s thrilled that K-12 education didn’t face more cuts this session, she said she’s hoping K-12 funding can eventually revert to a place where the state is doing more than “keeping ourselves at the bare minimum to avoid lawsuits.”
Retired banker Rep. Dan Furphy, R-Laramie, was able to get a bill into law that bestows “Medal of Honor City or Community” upon the communities in Wyoming that have been home to 17 Medal of Honor recipients. Laramie is one of those 17 communities.
Furphy’s only other bill would’ve provided tax credits to property owners who make improvements to abandoned buildings. The proposal, he hopes, will help revitalize the downtowns of municipalities in the state.
The bill passed out of the House and earned a lot of support, but was held back in the Senate in exchange for the promise that it would become an interim committee topic.
That deal came after county officials had questions about how they would handle the tax credits and report them to the state.
“That’s good and those questions need to get answered,” Furphy said. “To me, it shows the process works. When you have an idea, it should go through that process.”
Furphy said the Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Interim Committee is expected to consider legislation that would combine the Wyoming Business Council with ENDOW. He said he plans to fight against that devaluation of WBC’s role, which he said has been very important in Albany County.
“I want to continue to fight to keep the Wyoming Business Council in place,” he said. “It truly has benefitted us a lot.”
Furphy said he has “mixed emotions” about the new law that will allow community colleges around the state to offer bachelor’s of applied sciences degrees. UW actively lobbied against the bill.
“I hope they coordinate closely with the university on that,” he said. “I hope that can be a good thing if we get more of our citizens with bachelor’s degrees.”
Furphy said he’s also pleased by the passage of legislation that will reduce the testing for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade.
“We were testing those kids way too much,” he said. He said the legislative change to have more testing for dyslexia in those same children should also be a great step in diagnosing the learning disability early.
Unlike his first term in the Legislature, Furphy now sits on the minerals committee this interim. He said he requested that change since the minerals committee handles numerous banking issues and he’s hoping to lend his expertise there.
He said his first few months on the committee have been an eye-opening experience in teaching him about issues regarding mineral rights, and the conflicts that sometimes occur between the owners of surface rights and mineral companies.
“95 percent of the time they come to nice agreements, and 5 percent of the time, minerals companies were being pretty unrealistic and going in without an agreement with the ranchers,” he said.
Rep. Bill Haley, R-Centennial, said he’s pleased the Legislature was able to pass a measure this session that will foster career and technical education in the state. He also said Albany County ranchers should benefit from legislation that provides $250,000 to the Wyoming livestock board to help train sheriff’s deputies on investigating cattle rustling, and to reimburse deputies for their travel.
Wyoming sheriffs have described the funding as a need after the 2017 elimination of the state’s livestock inspectors, which put the onus on county law enforcement to investigate cattle rustling.
Local ranchers will also benefit, he said, from a bill that allows people to have a permanently recorded brand with the state.
Now in his third session in the Legislature, Haley said the lawmaking process has become “a lot easier” for him.
Both of the two bills he sponsored became law, though both faced significant scrutiny.
The retired game warden was able to get legislation enacted that gives the Wyoming Game and Fish Department more power to regulate antler and big-game horn collection.
Under previous statutes, Game and Fish can only regulate antler collect west of the Continental Divide, and only during winter. Haley’s measure now allows Game and Fish to regulate antler collection during any season, and that jurisdiction is expanded to include all public land west of Interstate 90 from the Wyoming-Montana state line to Buffalo and west of Interstate 25 from Buffalo to the Wyoming-Colorado state line.
Haley’s original draft called for Game and Fish to have to ability to regulate antler collection anywhere in the state, and said he was happy with the final version, which “wasn’t really a significant change, but it made some folks feel better.”
Haley said out-of-staters are increasingly flocking to mountains in Wyoming, like the Snowy Range, to collect antlers. That activity, he said, can compromise the survival of big game animals on their winter range.
Haley was also able to create new law that allows Game and Fish to give free lifetime fishing licenses to people who are “permanently disabled.” That bill passed the Legislature with only one change: Haley included a definition in the bill for the “permanently disabled” after some legislators expressed concern that people who don’t meet the layman’s idea of “disabled” would be able to qualify for a free license.
Next session, Haley said he’s hoping to get a legislative task force established that will focus on wildlife migration corridors.
He envisions that coalition as operating in a manner akin to the Sage Grouse Implementation Team, a governor-appointed group charged with crafting management practices to keep the bird from receiving protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Haley said he’s already talked to House leadership about the idea.
“If they don’t, I’ll probably bring a bill to get a task force established,” he said. “I think that’s too big of a topic not to pursue.”
In coming sessions, Haley said he’d like to see the state give the same type of small raises to employees that were appropriated this year.
“I’d like to see us get caught up,” he said.
Sen. Glenn Moniz, R-Laramie, was the only Albany County legislator not to personally sponsor any bills this year.
He said that was deliberate, instead deciding to focus on co-sponsoring other legislators’ bills, especially those from his peers in Albany County.
“I didn’t want to bring something to just be bringing something,” he said.
Many of the bills he co-sponsored did become law, and he played a key role in helping to get House Bill 293, the UW dorms bill, through the Legislature. Moniz co-chaired the task force in 2018 that helped formulate a funding plan for more than $300 million worth of new dorms on campus.
Moniz said that many of the education bills passed by the Legislature are a highlight of the session. In particular, he noted the bills that were passed regarding teacher accountability, teaching agreements between school districts for teaching students who live in remote locations, career and technical education, and fines for drivers who pass stopped school buses.
Moniz shares the sentiments of his fellow Albany County legislators, however, in feeling like they left Cheyenne this session with unfinished business.
“Overall, I have mixed emotions about how successful we were,” he said. “I don’t think we solved much on the health care issue.”
Like Haley, Moniz sits on both the House Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee and the House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee.
The Legislature’s Management Council decided on interim committee topics for both committees last week, and Moniz said he’s interested to see the results of the interim committee work the committees will undertake this interim.
The travel committee has prioritized scrutiny of Hot Springs State Park for its interim work. Moniz said he’s interested to see how that plays out after the state parks department has faced continuing issues with leases of concession operations at the park. During the 2019 interim, Moniz and his fellow committee members will explore “funding models outside of the general fund for outdoor recreation support.”
“We’re going to go up there and get in the middle of that and see if we can’t get that ironed out,” he said.
A renewed threat of invasive species in the state makes it pertinent, he said, for the agriculture committee to revisit the issue, as it’s doing this interim after making the issue one of its priorities.
Half of the six bills Pelkey sponsored this session are now law.
His playfully-titled Wyoming Beer Freedom Act was the first local bill to pass the state House this year, and Gov. Mark Gordon quickly signed the legislation that allows microbreweries to get 24-hour alcohol permits to sell their beverages at events.
Wyoming’s previous convoluted statute on microbreweries prevented such businesses from being awarded such a permit.
He also got another piece of “clean-up” legislation passed — a bill that merely stripped language from Wyoming’s estate law that discriminates against “illegitimate children.”
That “outdated language,” Pelkey’s said, runs contrary to other Wyoming law and federal case law that gives equal rights to children of non-married parents.
Pelkey, who practices criminal defense law, sits on the Joint Judiciary Committee, and the bulk of his work focused on criminal justice issues this session.
Pelkey said the Legislature is finally taking “baby steps” toward solving some of the major issues the state faces concerning criminal justice reform. One of the biggest changes is a law that will shorten the time that convicts spend on probation and parole after they’re released from prison.
That bill has financial benefits for the state, Pelkey said, as Wyoming will have to spend less on housing prisoners.
The Legislature needs to continue to work on reducing the state’s bloated prison population, which he said is a compounding problem for recidivism. When the state doesn’t have space to house its prisoners, it has to ship them out-of-state where there might not have the needed treatment options for prisoners with substance abuse issues, Pelkey said.
“I think we’re working to getting some of those issues reformed,” he said.
While it’s unlikely to have a great impact on the sentences criminals receive, one of the major overhauls to Wyoming’s criminal justice system came from a bill Pelkey sponsored individually.
Currently, when a convict is sentenced on a felony charge, the state is required to complete a “pre-sentence investigation” report — a sort of biography of the defendant — before a judge hands down a sentence.
Those investigations are costly, time-consuming and often unneeded in crimes where the sentence has been pre-determined in a plea deal. Pelkey’s legislation now gives judges the discretion to decide when such a report is needed.
This session, Pelkey also sponsored a bill that would have banned all exceptions that allow people younger than 18 to get married. That bill made it to a floor debate in the House, but died after some pushback from some conservative legislators who argued the bill ran counter to “parental rights.”
Under current law, parents can give legal approval for certain minors to get married.
“The only way that parental rights should come into play is that if you regard your children as chattel,” he said.
In pushing the bill, he noted child marriage is associated with high rates of high school dropout, disease, domestic violence and childbirth complications.
The bill died on a 26-31 vote. Pelkey said he’s likely to revive the measure in the future.
“I think I want that discussion going on,” he said.
Pelkey said he’ll continue to advocate in coming sessions for reducing penalties for marijuana. While it rarely happens, he notes that a charge of misdemeanor possession of marijuana can carry year-long jail sentences.
That kind of sentencing, which does occur, he said, is “a waste of money and a denial of justice.”
This interim, Pelkey said he hopes the judiciary committee will take a “serious look” at the sentencing structure for non-violent crimes.
“I’m particularly concerned about non-violent offenses that result in prison terms,” he said.
The judiciary committee needs to work to reform how the state’s court system handles cases involving mental health issues, Pelkey said.
“On balance, we’re probably better off after the session than before it. I can’t say that after every session,” Rothfuss said. “We failed to accomplish some things that we really needed to accomplish.”
The best part of this session, he said, is that the Legislature has fully maintained the “key government programs that are in place to help people.”
“At the same time, we certainly didn’t take any major steps to improve government services, diversify the economy or diversify the revenue structure,” he said.
He introduced three bills this year, including one that revived his proposal to replace the state’s partisan primary elections with a ranked-choice system.
Those types of bills, he said, are often introduced — not with the expectation that they’ll pass — but in the hope that they’ll start generating enough political support to eventually become law.
“A lot of times, it takes a lot of years to pass a piece of legislation,” he said.
This year, the ranked-choice elections bill finally passed a committee vote and made it to a floor debate, where it died on a 5-24 vote.
After dying enough deaths, those sacrificial bills can eventually find surprise support.
Democrats introduced a death penalty repeal bill for years with little success. This year, however, some Republicans decided to back the proposal. The bill passed the House and was narrowly defeated in the Senate.
While Rothfuss’s own health care legislation didn’t become law, he had particular praise for another bill — now law — that will allow Medicaid to be expanded to cover air ambulance services to all Wyoming residents.
That bill is largely aimed at finding ways to use Medicaid to cut down on the enormous bills that patients face. Currently, federal law has prevented the state from regulating life-flights, but the new law could find a way around that problem.
“It’s a very clever solution and I’m intrigued to see how it plays out,” he said.
He said he happy to see Gov. Mark Gordon take a fairly strong stand in vetoing parts of the Legislature’s approved supplemental budget that the governor said ran afoul of the Wyoming Constitution.
“A lot of what he said are a lot of the same talking points that I’ve been arguing on the floor,” Rothfuss said.
He said it’s also good to have “some tension” between the governor and the Legislature, and he’s expecting that relationship to be good for the state.
Rothfuss said he’s also interested to see what benefits the Wyoming Energy Authority will have in helping to spur new renewable energy projects, as well as creating a “front door” for the development of carbon capture and similar projects.
In the coming days, the Laramie Boomerang will print additional stories based on this week’s conversations with Albany County’s legislators.
A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Pelkey said “the only way that parental rights should come into play is that if you regard your children as cattle.” The story was updated March 28 to correct Pelkey’s statement. He said “chattel,” not “cattle.”